Chapter 50 — It Wouldn’t Be Saturday Morning Without Breakfast at Shirley’s

May 3, 2012

The Town Council met on Tuesday night and selected Sara Oswald to fill out the term of Mayor Combs, and Delores Gilbert was appointed to fill the vacancy on the council left by his death.

The annual May Day parade was held on Tuesday, with the high school band leading the way. There were six floats, representing the four school classes, the junior high, and the elementary school. Members of several area unions marched, also.

May Day also signals the start of “Varnishing Days” (or “vernissage,” if you prefer the French version), around here: that time of the year when we take a little extra time to spruce up around our homes and businesses. Curt Jackson reminds everyone that he will pick up supplies at the Ace Hardware in Fremont for free for the next two weeks.

Sally Ryan says that no more tickets are available for the Master Gardener spring garden tour. This is the tenth season in a row that the tour has reached its capacity.

Tryouts for Flint Hills Shakespeare Fest will be held next week at St. Mary’s College. This year’s production will be A Comedy of Errors.

Lance Graves says that auditions for Romeo and Juliet and A Very Potter Musical will be held June 1, 2, and 3. The Aeolian Acting Company will have a terrific season, we are sure.

Anna Mae Bundy hosted the Excelsior Book Club on Wednesday and members discussed The Language of Flowers. Georgia White brought three kinds of tea bread and samplers of jam.

The Walnut Shade Library and Museum Board met Monday evening and discussed repairs that need to be made to the building. Funds from the endowment were authorized not to exceed $500.

Clark and Ilene Wick and Mike and Elaine Brown went to Hiawatha on Saturday to play bingo at the VFW there. Elaine won $75.

Members of the American Legion got together Saturday night to play pinochle and raised $126 toward the purchase new tables for the Hall.

Plans are underway for the Flag Day Celebration, coming up in June. Stan Adams represents the American Legion and Carl Cunningham represents the VFW on the planning committee

The annual “L. Frank Baum Birthday Celebration and Weather Watcher Training” will be held in the elementary school gym on Tuesday, May 15. Pre-registration for the training is underway at City Hall.

Mark Sappington returned from Baltimore on Friday after spending a week researching the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller. Mark says that he and his cousin, Stephen, will be going to New Orleans in the fall to explore the Miller connection in that city.

Shirley Jackson’s sister, Rhonda Norris, was in town last week. Shirley turned over the running of the cafe to Wanda and Jay. The rumor around town is that that won’t ever happen again.

Over the last couple of weeks, Harry Morris has been shipping boxes containing his art installation to the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. His show is set to open June 1. Harry says that he has at least another week of sorting through “objects” at the Miller County landfill before he has everything he needs for the show.

Mayor Oswald (it’s going to take a while to get used to saying that) received word on Wednesday that Walnut Shade will be getting a visit from President Obama sometime in July. Looks like “Varnishing Days” will take on a bit more importance this year.

Well, with paint brush in hand…

Until next week, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Psychologists say that if you do something ten time, it becomes a habit. What if you’ve done something every week for twenty years, is it more than a habit? Is it an obsession? A compulsion?  A mania? A preoccupation? An infatuation? An addiction? A fetish? A hang-up? Is it just a bee in one’s bonnet?  A “thing?”

Well, I’ve eaten breakfast at Shirley’s for nearly every Saturday for at least twenty years, so it is definitely a “thing” for me and, I’d guess, for most of Walnut Shade. How could it not be? Shirley makes the best biscuits and gravy in northeast Kansas. Her pancakes are legendary. The cinnamon rolls are the size of South Dakota. And the coffee? You might as well just take your cup down to the creek and dip it into the water, because her coffee is ghastly. If something can be weak and muddy at the same time, that’s Shirley’s coffee. As far as we can tell, her coffee maker hasn’t been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. The only good thing you can say about the coffee is that it is free, with the purchase of anything else at all. And we tolerate the coffee so we don’t hurt her feelings, as if that could possibly happen.

But then there is Billy Thornton. For some reason, Billy loves Shirley’s coffee. He’s been known to even get a go-cup when he leaves. Sometimes, Shirley will sort of insist that we take coffee with us, and when we are thus forced to do so, we usually pour it into one of the planters along Main Street. Maybe that’s why the plants all look so forlorn. No, that’s not true; I’m exaggerating for literary effect. The plants all look spectacular. The Main Street/Pride committee takes particular… pride… in the foliage lining the street.

Shirley bought the cafe from Harlan Simpson in 1980. Harlan had inherited it from his father, George, who had purchased it from Wilbur Moss in 1940. It had been known as the Shady Cafe since the early 1920s, but Shirley thought it needed a new name; she couldn’t think of anything catchy and since people had been saying, “Let’s have lunch at Shirley’s” for several months, she decided to just give in and call it Shirley’s Cafe. But no one ever uses the word “Cafe” when they refer to it; it’s just Shirley’s to everyone in town.

Shirley recently put an ad in the Ledger for a new waitress. She inherited Wanda when she bought the cafe and even though she and Wanda have never gotten along, Wanda has stayed and Shirley has become accustomed to the yelling and threats to quit. Wanda told Shirley recently that she had decided it was time to retire after fifty years on the job. Wanda started working for Harlan in 1962 when she as fifteen. Her mother had recently died and Wanda dropped out of school to help raise her little brother and sister, and take care of her father, who was only intermittently employed because of what was generously called “an occasional spell of incapacitation,” meaning that he had a hard time resisting a drink. Wanda’s father, it must be said, was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, drunk or sober. He would, and literally did many times, “give you the shirt off his back.”

Wanda and her father and siblings lived on the south side of Fremont and every morning, she would hitch a ride with the man who delivered ice to the Shady Cafe. She did that until both her younger charges graduated from high school. At about that time, 1976 or so, her father’s drinking put him in the hospital where he died of general systems failure, as the doctor put it, and Wanda found herself alone for the first time in years. She sold the tiny house they had all been living in and moved to Walnut Shade, finally bought a car, and thanked Sam Reeves profusely for all the rides he had given her over the years.

Despite their differences, Shirley and Wanda agreed to part ways amicably and I’m told that there is going to be bit of a party one day after the cafe closes to celebrate Wanda’s time here. Jay and Macy are organizing it (a bit of an aside here: Macy got her name because she was born on Thanksgiving while the Macy’s parade was being televised).

The ad that Shirley put in the Ledger and posted around town reads as follows:

Experienced waitress wanted for busy Main Street restaurant. Must have excellent customer skills and good memory. Variable shift, 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Apply in person at Shirley’s Cafe in Walnut Shade. No phone calls.

Now, first of all, Shirley isn’t looking for a waiter; she’s specifically planning to hire a female for the job. How she’s going to get around EOC rules is anyone’s guess, but she’s made it clear that she wants another Wanda (without the yelling) and she won’t hire anyone with visible tattoos, no matter how much experience they have.

“Stacey was a great waitress who was liked by everyone who came into the cafe, but when she got that rose tattoo on her wrist, her work just went down hill. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it got infected and changed her brain somehow. Anyway, no more tattoos around here.” Shirley is adamant, so don’t expect to see anything in the least artistic showing up on whoever she hires.

Stacey had worked for Shirley for a couple of month at the beginning of last year, but like Shirley said, she got that tattoo and a week later, she left. It was not that her job performance suffered as Shirley implied; she left because her boyfriend moved to Denver and she decided to follow him. Shirley was just mad that she left so soon after being hired, and Wanda and Macy had to pick up the slack, which made them mad. Macy blamed Wanda for Stacey leaving, even though she had nothing to do with it, except Macy overheard Wanda telling Stacey that she thought her boyfriend looked like a nice young man and that she should think about getting married, which is exactly what we have learned happened. Stacey came back to visit a few months ago and when she dropped by the cafe, Macy gave her the cold shoulder. Shirley had forgiven her by this time and even joked that if Stacey wanted to come back to work, she could have her old job back. Macy fumed for a couple of days about that and then resumed her being miffed at Wanda, so things are back to normal.

In addition to needing a new waitress, Shirley is beginning to think that Jay, the cook for twenty-two years is starting to consider hanging up his ladle and spatula. Jay has had some health issues over the last year and there have been times that Shirley has had to do most of the cooking. Jay started with Shirley in 1990 when he got out of the Lansing Correctional Facility. He had been a guest there for fifteen months for “borrowing” a car and subsequently wrecking it on Highway 36 up by Marysville. The owner was his father-in-law who didn’t particularly like Jay to begin with and was not inclined to drop the charges. Shirley and Jay had briefly dated in high school and one day after he got out of prison, he just happened to stop by the cafe and was surprised to run into Shirley. Well, one thing led to another and Shirley hired Jay, who had learned a few cooking skills while in Lansing. While they were both smart enough to not rekindle their fleeting romance years before, Jay sill being nominally married, they did manage to develop a partnership that has been good for them both.

Despite all the personality conflicts, strong, and often contrary, opinions held by everyone concerned, and the almost daily issues, which probably aren’t all that unusual in a restaurant of any size, let alone a small one like Shirley’s, this is the place to be on Saturday morning. You’ll see nearly everyone in town come through for either their usual breakfast, which Wanda and Macy know by heart, or for a cup of Shirley’s horrible coffee, just so they can say “hi” to the rest of the community. I’ve mentioned before that if the Post Office is the heart of the community, I have to say (forgive me, please) that Shirley’s is definitely the stomach.


If you ask most people to name a modern artist, they will probably say Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock. For the ones who are a bit more culturally aware, Helen Frankenthaler, William de Kooning or Jasper Johns might come to mind. What, after all, could be more modern than a painting of a flag?

Sculptors don’t seem to register with people as artist, for some reason. Louise Bourgeois? Never heard of her? Giacometti? Hmmm. Maybe. Noguchi? Doesn’t he design handbags? Jeff Koons? Oh, yeah, the guy who does the balloon animals.

Well, some day, the name of Harry Morris, sculptor, will be on everyone’s lips, mark my words. If you’ll remember, Harry got his start when he won the top prize at the Fall Art Fair in Fremont with his installation that included a working black and white TV and other bits of ephemera he had picked up on the sides of Miller County roads and at the landfill. The judge from the Albrecht-Kemper Museum in St. Joseph was astounded by his piece, Moana Leasa, calling it a conceptual phenomenon. Those of us who have known Harry for a while are pretty sure that he is the real phenomenon, not necessarily his art.

Harry seems to have emerged in Miller County like Athena from the head of Zeus. One day, no Harry. The next day, Harry is there in all his glorious… weirdness. Entertaining weirdness. Marvelous weirdness. Happy weirdness. “That’s really strange, but really fun” weirdness. Some people have a tinge of foreboding in their weirdness, but with Harry, it’s all just jolly good times. Like Robin Williams at his best.

Most people have no clue about what Harry is doing with his art. His installation at the courthouse, precipitated by his winning the Art Fair, raised eyebrows and ire. The commissioners received lots of comments about it: letters, phone calls, emails, discussions at the Pioneer over lunch, impromptu chats on the steps outside the courthouse, in the halls of the courthouse, in the restrooms at the courthouse. Even after people learned that Harry had been invited to the Kemper Museum, the consensus seemed to be that the curator there must be crazier than Harry.

My guess is that the curator who saw something in Harry’s work will be getting job offers from the Met or LACMA pretty soon. And Harry will be spending even more time in the landfill in Miller County. In fact, Harry might have to expand his art recognizance and recovery expeditions to Riley County, or Brown County, or even Johnson County for the really choice ingredients that will go into the future most recognizable sculptures in the world. Don’t miss his work at the Kemper beginning May 25.


Coming up in a couple of weeks is another one of those dates that we celebrate in Walnut Shade: May 15, L. Frank Baum’s birthday. We think of him as one of our own, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near hear, because he immortalized our 1891 tornado in one of his books. Yes, that one.

Baum was a prolific writer, publishing eighteen Oz books, twenty-three fantasy novels, thirty-eight short stories, seventeen books using the pseudonym Edythe Van Dyne, and fourteen other books using the pen names Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, John Estes Cooke, Suzanne Metcalf, and Laura Bancroft. He also wrote adaptations of his books for the stage and even composed some of the music for these plays.

Some of his most interesting work was written as Edythe Van Dyne and provides a rather ironic twist to something that is happening right now in Walnut Shade. Baum wrote a series of what would now be called young adult novels, entitled Aunt Jane’s Nieces. Each book in the series puts the three nieces, Patsy, Beth, and Louise, in different situations such as traveling abroad, on a ranch out west, or working in the Red Cross, the last written just as the United States was about to enter World War I. The novel that rather coincides with current events around here is called Aunt Jane’s Nieces at Work placing the girls in the midst of a political campaign, with different roles based on their different skills and temperaments.

We are seeing “Aunt Jane’s nieces” in three young women who have come to Kansas to assist in the campaign of President Obama. Patsy, Elizabeth, and Louise Norris are nieces of Olive Jane “Aunt Jane” Johnson. Patsy and Louise are taking the summer off from their studies at the University of Chicago, and Elizabeth works for the Midwest Democratic Campaign Coalition as a communications specialist. Patsy will be soliciting support from businesses across the state, while Louise will be making contact with local county committees to engage individuals in the campaign. Elizabeth, with her communications skills, will be urging the editorial boards of newspapers like the Ledger to endorse the President for re-election. It should be an interesting summer for them and us here in Walnut Shade, especially with the visit by the President later on in July. We haven’t had a President visit Walnut Shade since the day Harry Truman had lunch at the Shady Cafe back in 1957.


Miller County News from the Past:

Fremont, July 4, 1924 — The Independence Day celebration was canceled this year because of the six days of rain that caused flooding along Main Street, as far south as the high school. The flood carried away two of the floats that were being decorated in George Watkins’ garage and Wilbur Graves, the band director, reports there was damage to many the instruments in the high school band room.

Blue Valley, June 12, 1946 – A big croquet game was played at James and Sarah Ott’s home last Sunday which delayed their lunch until about 3 o’clock. The game was concluded before dinner, with Sarah claiming victory, though James says one of her “outs” was questionable.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
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